The Art of the Smorgasbord

Aquavit chef Marcus Jernmark explains the traditional Swedish feast
Dan Myers

A traditional smorgasbord features primarily seafood, pickled herring in particular.

The smorgasbord has long been a subject of fascination for many of us. The concept of a wide array of delicacies for the taking might seem like a very American invention, but in reality the idea is just as popular abroad as it is here, especially in Sweden, where a traditional smorgasbord is the holiday centerpiece.

So what is a smorgasbord, exactly? To answer that question we reached out to Marcus Jernmark, the Swedish-born chef at New York’s famed Aquavit, a position previously held by Marcus Samuelsson. Surprisingly, the restaurant only hosts a smorgasbord a couple of times per year, for Easter, Christmas, and the midsummer crayfish party, but it's the best you'll likely find outside of Sweden.

"Smorgasbords are holiday celebrations, done only a couple times per year in Sweden," Jernmark told us. "It’s a large table with lots of cold dishes that vary depending on where you’re from, but it’s traditionally fish-based, without much in the way of starches, because it’s a celebration and people spend a lot of money on it!"

A traditional smorgasbord, according to Jernmark, could feature items like a wide variety of herring, gravlax, cold- and hot-smoked salmon, eels, breads, cold-water shrimp salad, pâtés from veal and calf liver, various sauces like the fruit-based Cumberland sauce, and an item called Gentleman’s Delight, which is an egg salad with anchovies and dill. At Aquavit’s Easter smorgasbord, those items were complemented with a wide selection of desserts and vegetable-based salads ("That makes it a little more approachable than just 15 herrings," Jernmark said).

Thanks to the ubiquity of buffets here in America, it might come as a surprise that traditional smorgasbords are rarely held in restaurants; they’re traditionally held in the home with family and friends. "It’s not a natural thing for most restaurants to do," Jernmark said. "In order to do it, it requires sticking to a lot of regulations: food needs to be kept at the proper temperature, you need sneeze guards, cooling and heating gadgets. There are also higher food costs, and you don’t know which food will go the quickest. It’s also challenging to keep it replenished at all times. People love buffets, but you can’t expect everyone to love a smorgasbord. They have a lot more choice if they’re ordering from a traditional menu."


Traditional Swedish smorgasbords are obviously different from your traditional American buffets, and everyone should experience it once, even if you’re not a fan of herring. At Aquavit, the next smorgasbord they hold will be in August, for the crayfish festival. "It’s similar to a traditional crawfish boil, but it’s not as spicy," Jernmark said. "You dip it in mayo and eat it with white bread, and everyone wears bibs and hats."